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Kentucky Budget Official Gives Update on Broadband Expansion

With $300 million to spend on expanding broadband service across the state, the Kentucky Infrastructure Authority plans to solicit Internet businesses on how to best proceed in anticipation of awarding bids on projects.

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(TNS) — With $300 million to spend on expanding broadband internet service across rural Kentucky, the Kentucky Infrastructure Authority plans to solicit the opinions of internet businesses on how to best proceed this summer in anticipation of awarding bids on projects.

Members of the Interim Joint Committee on Appropriations and Revenue discussed the upcoming broadband expansion project during a Wednesday afternoon meeting in Frankfort.

The funding comes from $250 million allocated by lawmakers during this year's General Assembly and $50 million in American Rescue Plan Act dollars. The goal is to expand "last mile" broadband deployment to homes that are underserved or unserved.

State legislators previously put a $50 million cap on the total that could be allocated to projects between now and April 1, 2022. But the committee's co-chairman said more of those dollars could be appropriated before April in a special legislative session if the project is successful.

"If it turns out to be August, September, October and you're ready to go ... it would be extraordinarily easy to have a special session called" just to pass a bill allocating more of the broadband funds, said Rep. Jason Petrie, an Elkton Republican.

Lawmakers heard from State Budget Director John Hicks, who is assisting the Infrastructure Authority in setting up the system for identifying broadband service gaps and soliciting bids.

"It's a greenfield project," Hicks said. "We have never done this before."

Hicks said the federal government guidance on broadband calls for faster download and upload speeds than are Kentucky's standards. The federal guidance is for a minimum upload and download speed of 100 megabytes per second. That is above the standard set by the state, but the federal guidelines make exceptions due to geography, topography or excessive cost. But even the exceptions must have a minimum download speed of 100 megabytes per second and 20 megabytes per second upload speed.

Hicks said KIA will send a "request for information" to businesses and governments that provide broadband service, "for their comments and suggestions" on how to proceed. Also, the KIA will be gathering information to update maps of areas with poor or no broadband service, he said.

"We know from looking at the maps ... there are plenty of unserved areas out there," Hicks said.

After that information is ready, the state will solicit requests for proposals from entities that want to expand broadband service.

"We are focusing the first $50 million on unserved" areas, Hicks said.

Rep. John Blanton, a Salyersville Republican, and other lawmakers wanted assurances that KentuckyWired, which completed a broadband fiber optic cable installation in all 120 counties earlier this year, would not be part of the project. KentuckyWired was found to have gone more than $100 million over budget, according to a 2019 investigation by ProPublica and the Louisville Courier-Journal.

Hicks said KentuckyWired was a "middle mile" project while the federal ARPA funds will be used for "last mile" connections to homes.

"This has nothing to do with KentuckyWired," Hicks said.

Companies that receive funds but don't live up to expectations could be subject to clawbacks, Hicks said. "We want performance, and there has to be accountability associated with that."

The request for information to providers should be issued within two weeks at the latest, Hicks said.

When asked when he can report back on how far the $300 million will go to expanding broadband, Hicks said costs will vary.

"I have that question on the back of my mind all the time," he said.

Additional funding for broadband deployment is being discussed in Washington, D.C., in talks of a federal infrastructure bill, Hicks said.

Petrie asked for a timeline with completion dates, so lawmakers will know when to ask for updates.

Completion dates will be part of the process, Hicks said.

Petrie told Hicks to keep legislators informed how things are progressing and if the remaining funds need to be released.

© 2021 the Messenger-Inquirer (Owensboro, Ky.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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